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Ray Lewis rants about replacements, again

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Well, at least he’s consistent.

Last week, after a one-point loss to the Eagles, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis railed on the replacement referees.

This week, after a one-point win over the Patriots, Lewis was at it again.

Via 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore, Lewis complained about a penalty called on safety Ed Reed for hitting New England receiver Deion Branch in the head while defenseless.  The penalty fueled a drive that resulted in a field goal that extended the Patriots’ fourth-quarter lead to nine.

“He turned his head to the side and clearly hit him with his shoulder pad,” Lewis said.  “Those things cannot affect the way this game is played.  And then the saddest part about it is when you hear other people say, ‘Oh, those are the rules.’  For real?  That’s not the rules.  The rules of this game is, ‘Do whatever you gotta do, by any means necessary.'”

It would be easy to crack a joke right here, but Ray’s ignorance of the rules is alarming.  Does no one in the Ravens organization explain these rules to the players?  Or does coach John Harbaugh show them a Saturday night Power Point presentation that says, “The rules are there ain’t no rules”?  Or has Ray simply delivered and/or received too many helmet-to-helmet hits of his own?

Lewis has been playing the game long enough to know better.  And when it comes to the hit applied by Reed to Branch, Lewis ignores the fact that Reed hit Branch in the helmet.  Defenseless players can’t be hit with a helmet or in the head/neck area.  While helmet-to-helmet hits are a subset of the forbidden types of contact against defenseless players, a forearm, elbow, shoulder, midsection, etc. to the head of a defenseless player should always trigger a flag.

Making Ray’s rant even less persuasive is the fact that folks are now pointing (incorrectly, we believe) to the absence of flags on key helmet-to-helmet hits like the one against Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bay as evidence that the replacements are jeopardizing the safety of players.  First, the regular officials often misses calls like that.  Second, the league office doesn’t miss them, dishing out five-figure fines on the following Friday.

But reason and logic and common sense don’t matter.  As explained earlier this morning, the tipping point has been reached regarding the officiating lockout.  Ray’s remarks — nonsensical as they may be — capture the mood of the fans, from hardcore to casual.  The NFL needs to get this worked out, or the fans will soon be voting with their wallets and their eyeballs.

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Steve Atwater rejoins Broncos, in multiple roles

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One of the greatest defensive players in Broncos history has returned to the team.

Safety Steve Atwater will become both an insider for the team-owned website fan development manager, via Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post.

Atwater, 50, spent 10 years with the team, winning a pair of Super Bowls and making it to the Pro Bowl eight teams. He was one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.

He also was responsible for one of the most memorable hits in league history, flattening monstrous Chiefs running back Christian Okoye.

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Sam Bradford feels more comfortable in Vikings offense this year

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Though it was hard to tell, Sam Bradford struggled to learn what was expected of him last year.

But even with a mid-season change at coordinator complicating his hi-nice-to-meet-you first season with the Vikings, Bradford still set a record for highest completion percentage (71.6) in league history.

The good news is, he feels a little more settled this year.

“Obviously last year was pretty unique, I have never been in that situation, and I don’t think many people have been in that situation,” Bradford told Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “But just to be here this offseason, to be able to go through the program, go through the meetings, the installs, really sit down and learn this offense and what we’re trying to do, it’s a much better situation than showing up here however many days, eight or nine, before the first game last year and trying to learn everything on the fly.”

While the trade from the Eagles just before the season was a shock to him, he benefited from the next change, as his background with Pat Shurmur eased the next transition after the departure of Norv Turner.

“I think the later we got in the year the better I felt with it,” Bradford said. “Obviously going through the change that we did kind of halfway through the season, having worked with Pat, I think that really helped me just because we have a really good relationship and I felt like we were able to communicate. Towards the end of the year I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on things.”

He responded with career highs in passer rating (99.3) and passing yards (3,877), but enters another season with uncertainty looming over him. Between the fact he’s entering the last year of his contract and the recovery of former starter Teddy Bridgewater from last year’s traumatic knee injury, Bradford knows there’s little beyond the immediate in his control, which makes familiar surroundings a good thing.

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OBJ visits Texas cancer patient, thanks to social media

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Say what you will about social media, but it allows for connections to be made that previously were impossible.

Case in point, via NJ.com: Through social media, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. learned about a boy in Texas with a rare form of cancer. So Beckham visited him.

Danny Richburg, the father of Giants center Weston Richburg, got the assist, bringing to Beckham’s attention via twitter a Facebook post regarding Jayro Ponce’s wish to meet Beckham. Beckham responded almost immediately, and only a few days after it all got started, Beckham was in Amarillo to meet with the boy.

If you’re inclined to kick in a little cash to help with Jayro’s treatment, feel free. It will be a lot cheaper and take a lot less time than hopping a plane to Texas.

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Bills hoping Sammy Watkins is close to 100 percent for camp

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The Bills are bringing veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin in for a visit Monday. But the receiver they most want to see next week is one already on their roster.

One of the biggest questions for the Bills this season will be the availability of Sammy Watkins, after he underwent a second surgery on his left foot earlier this offseason. He hasn’t spoken to reporters this spring, though he did do some team drills near the end of the minicamp, creating the expectation that he should be at least close to 100 percent when camp opens later this week.

“Credit to Sammy, credit to our training staff and the way he’s attacked the rehab with them,” coach Sean McDermott said then, via Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. “That has to continue, though. This is one step in that process of getting Sammy back to where he needs to be and where we need him to be.”

The Bills will likely keep the reins pulled back on Watkins, so as not to create any setbacks in what has been a career marked by injuries.

He played in the first two games last year before foot problems sent him to injured reserve. He came back to play the final six games of the season, but was far from the dynamic player they anticipated. Because of that, and the lingering health questions, they didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

He’s shown when he’s been well that he can be a playmaker. He just hasn’t been often enough, making this a crucial season for him.

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Richard Sherman confirms choice words in practice for Russell Wilson

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The Seahawks may dispute talk of hard feelings in the locker room toward their quarterback, but one of their most prominent players doesn’t deny using a little locker-room talk toward Russell Wilson.

In an interview with Josina Anderson of ESPN, cornerback Richard Sherman admitted that, during a June 2014 practice, he intercepted Wilson and shouted “you f–king suck!” at him.

“That’s 100% true, and I’ve said worse,” Sherman said, via TheBigLead.com. “I’ve said worse to Doug [Baldwin], I’ve said worse to [Jermaine] Kearse. Iron sharpens iron, as one man sharpens another. . . . I’m sorry that our competition, that the way we sharpen our iron, isn’t pretty and cordial. I’m sure if you went to see bad teams, they probably get along great, probably slapping high fives, but then you go 4-12.”

Sherman is right, but the whole “iron sharpens iron” thing doesn’t apply only to rough words or flared tempers. The notion that the best try to get the best out of those around the best includes the reality that if the best isn’t being generated by the best, there should be accountability.

Which gets back to one of the primary points made in the disputed story from Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine that led with the “you f–king suck” quote. For the same reason Sherman would bark that at Wilson in the heat of the moment, Sherman and other teammates also would reasonably expect the coaching staff to coach Wilson as hard as the other players on the team are coached, and not to have any sacred cows or untouchable teammates who don’t get the same treatment.

Iron sharpens iron. So if a piece of iron is being sharpened with a velvet glove, it’s not going to be a sharp as it could be.

But Sherman and his teammates won’t admit that. They shouldn’t admit that. It all goes back to iron sharpening iron, and it’s a process that those who are iron believe those who aren’t iron would misunderstand, turning into something that it isn’t.

It’s not personal. It’s not mean spirited. It’s not petty. It’s about winning games, pursuing championships, and cementing legacies.

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PFT Live returns Monday, with a vengeance

My mandatory vacation is nearly over. And while four weeks of the PFT Live podcast (plus several interviews during the break, including sit-downs with Dak Prescott, Bruce Arians, Adam Gase, Rob Ninkovich, Wes Welker, and Drew Rosenhaus) helped fill the void, there was no replacement for three hours per day, five days per week, of radio and TV.

It resumes Monday morning, when I’ll be joined by Barstool Big Cat. The co-host of the wildly popular Pardon My Take podcast will be in studio for the final two hours of Monday’s and Tuesday’s show. And maybe we’ll open the phone lines at some point for a phone call from his podcast partner and my Internet son, PFT Commenter.

So join us at 6:00 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio, and/or at 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN, as we all get ready for the 2017 season.

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Latavius Murray finds motivation in memory of friend

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Vikings running back Latavius Murray was believed to be the successor to Adrian Peterson, until the team drafted Dalvin Cook. With Murray’s role now vague and undetermined, especially since he was unable to participate in the offseason program, one thing is clear — he finds motivation from the memory of a friend who died last year in a shooting.

Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has the story on Murray’s tumultuous November, when his best friend, Jonathan Diaz, was shot and killed.

“You’re used to talking to somebody every day, telling him everything and you spent so much time with a person, and then they’re just not there,” Murray said last month. “It’s an unreal feeling. It still doesn’t feel real.”

Murray, then playing for the Raiders, suited up in the next game after Diaz died. He gained only 45 yards on 19 carries against Carolina.

“I went to work and was a mess,” Murray said. “I felt I had no choice. A part of me feels guilty, but what do you do in that situation? It also put it into perspective the game of football. I didn’t care for nothing that game. But I had to be out there, I guess.”

Murray now must also process the reality that the man who killed Diaz was acquitted of murder, based on self-defense. And Murray’s decision to change from No. 28 to No. 25 means he’ll be wearing Diaz’s high-school number.

The extra motivation to honor Diaz can’t hurt. But here’s the reality: Murray’s three-year, $15 million contract is actually a one-year deal worth as little as $3.4 million. Those financial realities should be more than enough reason to Murray to practice and play as well as he can.

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Ezekiel Elliott’s accuser speaks out, a year after alleged abuse

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A year after Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott allegedly engaged in domestic violence five times in a six-day period, his accuser has spoken out.

“Exactly 1 year ago today my life changed forever,” the woman accusing Elliott of domestic violence posted on social media, via TMZ. “I finally got the strength to be the strong woman I was and got myself out of a very toxic relationship. Ladies never think you’re too in love or too scared to leave because at one point that was me. There’s plenty of opportunities out there for you. Love yourself first. Speak up and stop domestic violence.”

The statement underscores the reality that, if the NFL doesn’t take action against Elliott, the alleged victim may decide to tell her full and complete story, either by doing an interview or filing a lawsuit. Which would put the league in the awkward spot of having to decide whether to leak or publish details that would refute her claims — or whether to weather the inevitable P.R. storm.

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PFT preseason power rankings No. 6: Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott has proclaimed the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East again. If so, they will accomplish some things they haven’t in a long time.

The Cowboys haven’t repeated as division champions since 1996, the year after the franchise’s last Super Bowl championship; they have not posted back-to-back winning seasons since 2008-09; and it’s been since 1995-96 that the Cowboys have had back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.

However, because of their talent on offense, the Cowboys head into 2017 as Super Bowl contenders.

Prescott won offensive rookie of the year honors with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions; Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards, earning him six MVP votes; Dez Bryant remains a big-play threat; and the Cowboys have three All-Pro offensive linemen.

It’s the lack of talent on defense that invites questions about how far the Cowboys will go this season. They lost six defensive players in free agency who combined for 64 starts last season, and the Cowboys spent seven draft picks on defensive players to replace them. The Cowboys are younger on defense than last season, but are they better?

Biggest positive change: The Cowboys lost 11 players in free agency and two more to retirement. They didn’t make any ballyhooed moves. But Tony Romo’s retirement assures two things: The Cowboys don’t have to worry about their all-time leading passer winning a Super Bowl elsewhere; and the quarterback controversy of last season is over. Dak Prescott won the job after Romo injured his back in the preseason, but even after Romo read a concession speech upon his return, a quarterback controversy remained. Romo’s departure leaves no question: This is Prescott’s team. The Cowboys veterans turned the keys over to Prescott this offseason, empowering him as their leader.

Biggest negative change: The Cowboys offensive line has earned the right to call itself the NFL’s best. Three linemen made first-team All-Pro honors last season. However, while center Travis Frederick, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin return, the Cowboys lost the other two starters with whom they ended last season. Left guard Ron Leary signed with Denver in free agency, and right tackle Doug Free retired. The Cowboys moved left guard La’el Collins, who started the first three games last year before season-ending toe surgery, to right tackle and have often-injured Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, competing at left guard. The Cowboys might need some time to adjust to the changes.

Coaching thermometer: Jason Garrett enters the third year of a five-year deal with job security after last season’s 13-3 finish and NFL coach of the year honors. Garrett, though, has only a 58-46 record with two playoff appearances and one playoff victory in six full seasons as head coach. If he doesn’t get the Cowboys to the championship game this season, the heat will be on for next season.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Jason Witten. Truly one of the NFL’s all-time good guys. He is all about team on the field, and all about helping others off it. In 2012, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Five years after Witten’s retirement, Hall of Fame selectors will discuss his career. Witten has missed only one game in his career, sitting out a game against the Eagles his rookie season with a broken jaw, and he rarely misses practice. Who can forget his signature play from 2007 against the Eagles when Witten ran helmet-less down the field for a 53-yard gain?

How they can prove us wrong: Cowboys fans are painfully aware their team hasn’t made the NFC Championship Game since 1995, which was the last time they won the Super Bowl. They are 3-9 in the postseason since. As good as Tony Romo was, becoming the team’s all-time leading passer, he was 2-4 in the postseason. The Cowboys’ past two playoff losses – in 2014 and 2016 – came against the Packers when they couldn’t get enough consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Getting to the passer continues to be a trouble spot for the Cowboys.

Dallas has not had a player with double-digit sacks since defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013, and it has not had a “war daddy” pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round, but he isn’t that. Rod Marinelli instead will rely on a rotation of pass rushers that includes Demarcus Lawrence, Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper, with hopes of wearing down offensive lines.

The Cowboys need more than 36 sacks and more than nine interceptions on defense, and they need Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to continue to do what they did last season on offense.

The Cowboys will be hard pressed to win 13 games again, especially if Elliott misses any games because of an NFL suspension. But with a defense expected to feature four players who have yet to play a down in the NFL, the Cowboys actually could be better going into the 2017 postseason than they were in 2016 when they went four weeks between meaningful games.

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Carson Palmer believes he has more zip, velocity than a year ago

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Cardinals coach Bruce Arians believes quarterback Carson Palmer wore out his arm during offseason workouts in 2016. This year, Palmer did a lot less — and he consequently has a lot more in the tank as preparations commence for the season to come.

You feel like you have more zip, more velocity,” Palmer said before Saturday’s initial training-camp practice, via the Associated Press. “I feel like I can go out and throw 150 balls in practice. I don’t think I felt that way coming into camp last year.”

That’s good news, especially in light of Palmer’s advanced age. Which he refuses to regard as advanced age.

“In football years, I think it’s perceived once you get to 35 you’re old,” Palmer said. “But if you can still put it on every day and play and work out and train and prepare mentally, I look at is as being experienced and mature.”

But the end is obviously coming for the 37-year-old Palmer, who entered the league in 2003 as the first overall pick in the draft. And the question is whether the Cardinals can reverse what was a disappointing 2016 season, which Arians believes came off the rails with a Week One loss to the Patriots.

Don’t assume they can’t. Even with a tired arm entering camp last year, Palmer threw for 4,233 yards — the third highest total of his career.

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Josh McCown respects Brandon Marshall’s dim view of the Jets

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Former Jets receiver Brandon Marshall recently said he wouldn’t have made it through another season with the team “knowing that we didn’t have a chance.” The man who likely will be the Week One starting quarterback, and who played with Marshall in Chicago, has reacted to that assessment of his new team.

That’s Brandon’s opinion and Brandon is a friend of mine,” Josh McCown said, via Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. “I love him and he’s entitled to his opinion. I wish him the best at the Giants. We’ve got a direction we’re headed and excited about. I really don’t pay too much attention to it just because guys have different opinions about things, and that’s his. I don’t agree with it, but as a friend, hey, I respect it.”

That’s a fairly mild, and sort of boring, assessment of the situation from McCown. The real question is whether the Jets will be privately reacting to the external criticism and dismissals differently, and whether comments from people like Marshall and most of the media will become motivation for a team that many view as the worst in the league.

Whether ownership secretly wants them to be at the bottom of the NFL, and in turn the top of the draft order, is one thing. Whether the players will go along with that is another. They may not have the talent that they need, but they definitely will have plenty of reason to try to prove plenty of people wrong.

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Bucs soon to begin effort to be “badass”

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Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter declared after the draft that he wants his team to be “badass.” The effort begins this week, with the NFL Films/HBO cameras rolling and microphones engaged.

But first the players need to be on the same page as to what it means to be badass.

“A badass team means someone is going to go out there and fight,” left tackle Donovan Smith recently said, via Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “Grit. Down to the nitty gritty and go after it. Lean on teams. Get after them. Make them feel us all four quarters. When I hear that, that’s what it means to me.”

G.M. Jason Licht sees it another way, and he compares Koetter’s ability to push buttons to some of the best coaches in the game.

“We’re doing this together,” Licht said. “We need everybody to stay together and stay focused on the plan. I think that that message has really taken in from what Dirk is telling the team. We want, obviously, very competitive guys that want to win and want to win at all costs. That’s the identity that I want every player to have and Dirk as the head coach wants every player to have on this roster.

“Dirk has a rare blend of being direct and calculated and genuine in the message he delivers. It’s got a theme and every week. The guys I thought are the best at it is Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Bruce Arians. They have a fresh message every week. Dirk is right there with them.”

He’s not yet right there with them yet regarding postseason accomplishments; the Bucs haven’t made it to the postseason since 2007. But Koetter has been the coach for only one season, and the Bucs nearly got there in 2016.

Although plenty assume it will happen for the Bucs in the 10th anniversary of the last time it did, the NFC South features the last two NFC champions in Carolina and Atlanta and a New Orleans franchise that hopes it will be able to get back to where it was in 2009, when it made it to the Super Bowl and won it.

Arguably the most wide open division in the NFC, the Buccaneers will continue to reside on the fringe of playoff contention until they find a way to bust through to the final 12. If they manage to get there while constantly competing with the likes of the Falcons, Panthers, and Saints, maybe the Buccaneers will be able to do some badass things if they get there.

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Chargers’ Mike Williams denies he needs season-ending back surgery

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Chargers first-round receiver Mike Williams is denying a report that he’ll need season-ending back surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Appearing at Alshon Jeffery’s football camp, Williams told reporters that his back is going to be fine.

“I’m good. Everything’s good,” Williams said. “The back situation, that was some false information being released. I don’t know who released it, but everything is good.”

Williams suffered the injury at rookie minicamp and hasn’t been able to do much in the Chargers’ offseason program since, but he apparently believes he’ll be healthy enough to play this season, without surgery.

The Chargers took Williams out of Clemson with the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft.

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Deshaun Watson will take “open mind” and “open book” to training camp

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Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson embarks on his first NFL training camp next week, and he’s bringing the right attitude with him.

I just listen to all the veteran guys,” Watson said Saturday after an appearance in South Carolina, via Scott Keepfer of the Greenville (S.C.) News. “I’ll keep an open mind and an open book. . . .

“I’ve been wishing I could do this for a long time, and now it’s finally here, So I’ll be enjoying every moment, cherishing every moment and taking it one thing at a time.”

Watson also expressed appreciation for the praise he recently received from Texans assistant coach Wes Welker, who raved on PFT Live about Watson’s demeanor and work ethic.

“That’s pretty cool right there,” Watson said regarding Welker’s remarks. “Wes is a great guy, great mentor, especially for the receivers, but also for me. He’s seen a lot, played a lot of football, experienced a lot.”

Watson has experience a lot at the college level, where he played very well in consecutive NCAA championship games for Clemson against Alabama. Which is one of the reasons why Watson has had the highest-selling NFL jersey since the draft in both North Carolina and South Carolina.

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Does Belichick think Garoppolo will be the next Brady?

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Tom Brady supposedly hopes to play for another five or six seasons. Jimmy Garoppolo has only one more season of a commitment to the Patriots. So how will this one play out?

Coach Bill Belichick may eventually have to make a choice between the two. Underscoring the stakes of that decision is the possibility that Garoppolo could become the next Brady.

“Bill thinks he’s got the next great one,” an unnamed scout told Mike Giardi of CSN New England. “I watched his snaps. I think he can be that. [Garoppolo] has a great base, and his mechanics are close enough to [Brady] that you appreciate his willingness to learn and the coaching he’s gotten there.”

If Belichick truly has the next great one, so does agent Don Yee, whose firm represents both Brady and Garoppolo. Given that Brady consistently has done below-market deals with the Patriots, many assume that Garoppolo will behave the same way, especially in light of the Yee connection.

But what if Yee intends to make back from Garoppolo some of what Yee didn’t make from Brady? What if Garoppolo, buoyed by the Kirk Cousins situation and an emerging sense among players that they individually should be making more than they do, decides to play the same kind of hardball with Belichick that Belichick consistently plays with all of his players?

Garoppolo is 16 regular-season games and up to four postseason games away from becoming a free agent. And those games likely will involve little or no risk, since Plan A will be for QB1 to take all the snaps. Indeed, Garoppolo’s biggest injury risk will come over the next month, when he’s taking snaps behind the second-string offense line.

Like every other quarterback due to become a free agent, the analysis of his value is simple. The franchise tag will exceed $22 million for 2018. And that number will become at least $26.4 million for Garoppolo in 2019 and at least $38 million for 2020. That’s a minimum of $86.4 million that Garoppolo would make on a year-to-year basis over three years, if the Patriots keep using the franchise tag to keep him in place.

If they don’t tag him in any given year, Garoppolo would hit the open market — and possibly hit the jackpot. Ultimately, then, the question will be whether he’s not only the “next great one” but also the next great one to accept less-than-great contracts in a sport where the stars seem to be waking up to the leverage they possess.

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